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Let's say the world as we know it has been brought to an end by a nuclear apocalypse.

Our perspective centers on a small group of survivors in one area, benefiting from a shelter of some kind. These people are aware of the recent apocalypse, and have moderate stocks of food, firearms, ammunition, etc. However, they do not know if they are the only survivors left on Earth, nor do they know about anything that has happened since the apocalypse started.

For such a group, what is the most important political or economic objective to complete in order to ensure their survival? This could be in the short or medium term, but it should be the group's main focus.

  • Is it to construct shelter, or is that less important considering they are already leveraging existing infrastructure?
  • Would it to be to construct defenses, such as anti-missile systems?
  • Or would it be simply to invest in proper governance and social institutions to provide a foundation for further growth? I'm particularly interested if anyone has any suggestions for literature about this type of question.

To bring this closer to an on-topic question, I'm going to introduce the following conditions:

  • The leadership can, and must, be able to control every part of the objective without subcontracting sovereignty. In that sense they must be able to retain authoritarian control.
  • The objective must be reasonably completable within 5-10 years.
  • There should be a realistic way of achieving this objective.
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:43

8 Answers 8

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Reinforcing their defenses and economy

The biggest threats to any society are their bellies and their blood. If they can't maintain good foodstocks in the long run they'll die, and if they can't protect themselves they'll die. As such, they need to reinforce their home base.

Most government types will be moderately functional if the society is small and food and water is common. People can negotiate out any problems directly with leaders and the low distance means it's fine.

Nuclear bombs, radiation, and waste are big early threats.

If they are hit directly by a nuclear bomb they are dead, but if they get the edge of one, or the waste, they'll die. In the short run they should be reinforcing their base. It's unlikely that anyone will be aiming directly at them, and post apocalypse it's unlikely anyone will have the infrastructure or knowledge to maintain or shoot a nuke, but it's very possible in the next couple of weeks someone will fire something.

Radiation also falls off rapidly.

A nuclear explosion produces a complex mix of more than 300 different isotopes of dozens of elements, with half-lifes from fractions of a second to millions of years. The total radioactivity of the fission products is extremely large at first, but it falls off at a fairly rapid rate as a result of radioactive decay. Seven hours after a nuclear explosion, residual radioactivity will have decreased to about 10 percent of its amount at 1 hour, and after another 48 hours it will have decreased to 1 percent. (The rule of thumb is that for every sevenfold increase in time after the explosion, the radiation dose rate decreases by a factor of 10.)

As such, they should be reinforcing buildings to act as shelters, securing air gaps, and generally making sure their core base is safe. If they can hide inside from radiation for just 48 hours it becomes a much smaller threat. There's still a cancer risk, but nothing like what it was like right after the nuke.

In the middle timeframe, humans are the bigger threats

Soon, survivors who are starting to run out of good supplies are gonna look at your base and think "We deserve that." Your walls and reinforcements along with good guards should help deter them. You want your base to be fairly solid so they can't just blast you out, and you want the surrounding area to be well scouted so you can smash any threats.

This is also the time when you do as much scavenging as possible, and reinforce your supplies. Having a wall to do so is essential as you need somewhere safe to run to when things get hot.

In the long run they need to start generating supplies

Over 5-10 years supplies will start going bad. Some will last longer, but to remain functional as a community they need to start producing food and machine parts and other useful supplies.

This means their city needs to be stable. They need walls and guards to prevent someone from stealing their supplies or stocks. Walls and guards remain the most important investment of time.

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Address your needs in order of priority.

According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which has been often distorted of his actual works, but here is perhaps the most accurate representation, it will go roughly like this...

Image of needs hierarchy

You need your resources first.

Without air, food, or water, anything else is useless. Dead bodies control nothing, form no societies, and don't care how secure they are.

It doesn't have to be a lot of resources. Just enough that survival-level consumption is, most of the time, covered.

You need your security second.

Whichever it is that genuinely threatens you, protect against it. Even if it doesn't kill you, the fear will hold you back from the next steps.

Again, it's enough to achieve normal security: that you're not constantly on the run from predators, that you don't lose people in raider fight every day, that you're not in trench warfare.

You need a cohesive society third.

Once you're not under constant threat, build some form of society where people have adequate bonds to each other. It may be family-based or communal. It may include or suppress feelings - we're not following Maslow here.

But it needs to have something that bonds people together besides their own immediate survival. People will always form bonds, e.g. within a family, but your society should make them also form across families. Stitch the whole thing together.

Without social bonds, societies fall apart into smaller groups, once one group's interests are better served by not playing along. An online poker table, for instance, is not a sustainable society model.

Fourth, focus on governance.

The need for sovereignty, governance, and social institutions arises only once the more basic needs have been met. Then people start competing for power - not just to get more meat to feed yourself, but the power to control who gets the meat, power for power's sake.

As a newly-reborn society, you don't have the luxury to focus just on one objective. Your mission should be to fulfill these needs-based objectives in order.

Big ideas come later.

Most post-apocalyptic fiction focuses on societies where the upper pyramid, "Growth or being needs" in the picture, is either absent completely, or limited to a few exceptions. Sometimes it's the hero, other times a quirky outlier character. That's the essence of the survival genre.

This means, for instance, that religion becomes optional. Primitive societies had beliefs and rituals, but they were non-systematic. Big secular ideas like "restore the old world" or "bring a revolution" also only get popular traction once there is something to rebel against.

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  • $\begingroup$ "build some form of society where people have adequate bonds to each other" - you can maybe e.g. have social events to encourage this, but even if their basic needs aren't fully met, people naturally tend to form bonds with those around them (not so much in the internet age, where it's often easier to form a bond with someone on the other side of the world than to form one with someone on the other side of your hallway, and people travel significant distances to meet up with friends, but this wouldn't be the case in a post-apoc society). $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 27, 2023 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @NotThatGuy True... I guess it's more that you want to make sure they make bonds that stitch the whole society together, rather than split it into small groups. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Mar 27, 2023 at 14:11
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Food and Water

The absolute main priority should be to find ways to become independent of the remaining supplies. Start planting crops and if you can find start a herd of livestock. Aside from food, they offer also other valuable resources like feathers, bones, leather, wool, etc. Also, you need a source of fresh water. Either dig a well or find a clean river that is nearby your shelter.

Optional: Means of travel

If there is no access to water, or you don't have fertile ground to plant crops, you will soon have to abandon your first shelter. For that, you should scout the region to find a place to settle down. Ruins close to a clean river should be preferred but if in doubt opt for water and food instead of existing buildings. If the way to the new shelter is more than a few kilometers/miles you need to prepare for the resettling. Try to get cars working or build at least some carts to carry your supplies with you. If the leaders don't trust the scouts some of them could do the scouting or give the scouts very limited rations so they have to come back.

Gather/Spread knowledge

Skills like agriculture, mechanics, and medicine are essential for your survival. If you have only one with those skills make them take apprentices in case the guy with the knowledge dies. This is also important to prevent people from using their knowledge and skills as leverage against the leaders. Otherwise, they could press for better accommodations (which will cause envy/resentment in your group) or they could use the leverage when they disagree with the leaders.

Also, seek out libraries and collect books on various topics. A worker with skills in a specific field is good, but with a few books on the topic you can figure stuff out on your own and do just fine. For example, a book on how to purify water or on medicine could be worth lives in the wastelands.

Optional: Defense

A bit of defense should be the top priority. You don't want roaming animals to feed on your crops (or even your people). Build a fence. When it becomes apparent that other people survived as well, sturdier defenses like walls might be needed to repel looters.

Keep them occupied

To maintain leadership always keep your people busy. Never seem like you don't know what to do next. Especially WHEN you don't know what to do next. Plan ahead. Have the next task ready before anyone has finished their current task. Downtime and breaks are necessary, of course, but even there they shouldn't be on their own. Get them to play small games or tell each other stories.

Also involve everyone. Even the wounded or sick can do small tasks (unless it is really bad or they are unconscious). When you found books it is a great job for bedridden people to sift through them, order them by topics and make bookmarks on important chapters. Also sorting small scraps like screws, nails and such is an important but not very exhaustive task.

Don't abuse your leadership

A few extra accommodations for the leaders are okay, but regarding the bare necessities you should not take more than your share. For example having an extra room for you to have a place to retreat for planning, while the others sleep together in a hall is okay. Taking extra rations is not okay. Privileges help differentiate leaders from ordinary people, but luxuries will eventually make the ordinary people resentful.

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The conditions you've given basically set out the priorities for the leadership more than asking the community to provide them: The leadership can, and must, be able to control every part of the objective without subcontracting sovereignty. In that sense they must be able to retain authoritarian control.

If the controlling group needs to maintiain complete control then their first priority should be some sort of political, organisational or governance approach which stalls or denies revolution. Their priority must be creating and maintaing that political system and then working through that to achieve such other things that are important to them. A primary focus on keeping control for a small controlling group does not lead to longer term success generally.

Unless this survivor group is very small then it's unlikely that this level of control will be possible through force in the long run. An apparently fair and reasonable way of dividing labour and the benefits of labour will be an absolute requirement in the survivor group if the leadership is to persist. Establishing this should also create a workforce that can focus on the leadership's goals rather than personal or family goals. It can give local autonomy on how a goal is completed without giving up overall control on which goal is completed which is valuable for providing survivors a sense of personal purpose and a stake in the whole group's success.

As examples, I think the descriptions of how labour is divided in St Kilda, a small and very remote Scottish island chain is insteresting. As are modern project management approaches like Agile.

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The most important objective is a weak form of one of your conditions: cohesion. If they don’t maintain cohesion they are either dead or absorbed into another group.

This does NOT need to be authoritarian, it doesn’t need to control every part of the life of the members, and that in fact would be detrimental as what you need now is initiative.

Anti-missiles? You should be worrying about eating, not inventing new missiles.

You need a plan to expand your food and water storage, as well as defensive abilities. Walled towns should be considered. They are a waste of time and resources in a homogeneous culture, but the existing culture was just destroyed, and it’s uncertain what will be created in the future.

Basically, you need to be planning to build a western town from the US circa the 1850’s.

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Short Term

Survive.

Okay, I know this sounds simple, but I want you to remember the setting you have - No access to Civilization. You are out in the bush with just tools, your wits and yourself.

Survival, even for skilled practitioners in this type of scenarios is hard.

Your immediate short-term goal is to survive.

Breaking this down depends on Climate - but usually priority is given to the thing that will kill you the fastest:

Water or Shelter are usually first. You'll die of dehydration within 5-10 days, but can be earlier.

Shelter depends on your environment - if you are in a nice temperate area in summer, then Shelter might not be quite so high on your list, but if you are in a cold or wet area - then it might be higher than Water.

Then you've got food. Hunting and Gathering is not sustainable for the long-term once a population gets above a certain size.

Less Short Term

So, we have Food, Water, Shelter. Let's assume we have some form of semi-permanent structures (Teepees, Tents etc.) and we have access to Arable land. So now we are working on feeding a population. This is the next stage in any civilization development. Farming moves a population from merely 'surviving' to being able to grow and prosper.

Short-to-Medium Term

A Small farming hamlet, like most small towns of say the Medieval period - there is now enough excess labour and resources to start being concerned with the Defence of this area.

This could take the form of a structures (Watch Towers) or it could take the form of military training - regardless how you frame it - once you have a settled area with permanent structures and a stable food supply, you need to defend it.

Medium Term

Education.

I kinda hinted at this in the above answer when I referenced Military training - Now that we have a settled, stable society - we need to start transferring knowledge and sharing the wisdom that is still retained. This doesn't just mean formal education - Trade Schools, guilds etc.

Medium to long term

Money.

Yes, it may be the root of all evil - but up until this point, Barter is likely to be sufficient for Trade between the survivors - but as society gets more complex, you will need a medium of exchange - which means Money.

Long Term

Politics/Elections

Like Money, it's a necessary evil - all going well, the Population will have grown to the point where there are too many people for discussions to be had inter-personally, formal leadership is needed AND people need a means to feel that they have been heard.

a group of 100 Adults, for example, can reasonably expected to sit down and discuss and issue and reach a consensus and compromise that everyone can just about live with.

1,000 Adults, however, not so much and 10,000 definitely not.

In 10 years, it depends on what skills they had to start with and the population size - but getting all the way to having money, politics and civic institutions (Education) isn't unreasonable.

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Question asked in singular for most important objective:

  • Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and galaxies.

The others are corollaries and strategies to achieve this one singular objective.

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  • $\begingroup$ Simple, but I like it. It's easy to get lost in the weeds of imagining specifics, but ultimately "survival" isn't that meaningful if families and children aren't the true objective. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Mar 27, 2023 at 2:38
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Simply put food and water would be the most pressing issue. Without access to a high amount of calories and clean water no population can sustain. So your band will have to quickly find an area with plentiful food and water resources and try their best to assert control over it

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